1934-38 Texas Centennial Half Dollar
“Remember the Alamo!” was the cry that spurred Texans on to ultimately defeat Mexico’s army and claim their independence as a republic. The tragic showdown at this humble mission yard in San Antonio became emblematic of the struggle for freedom and self-determination. Nearly a century later, the first in a series of coins celebrating this achievement was issued by the United States Mint. Spanning some five years, these coins eventually became a burden on collectors, who were obliged to purchase each additional issue to maintain the completeness of their sets. By the time the minting of these coins ceased, many hobbyists were quite prepared to forget the Alamo.
Since it was first touched by European exploration in 1528, with the brief visitation of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Texas was largely unknown to anyone but the natives until early in the 19th Century. By that time, Spain had established a few settlements in towns such as San Antonio, Nacodoches, Goliad and Laredo. These villages were originally intended to deter French encroachment from neighboring Louisiana, yet Spain’s colony of Mexico faced a new threat with the purchase of this vast territory by the infant United States of America in 1803. At first, the Spanish cautiously permitted a limited number of Yankees to immigrate to Texas. In 1821, Moses Austin negotiated an agreement with the Spanish governor to resettle 300 families in the region, most of these coming from the southern states. By the time they finally arrived in 1822, Moses Austin had died, and the settlers were now led by his son Stephen. Texas too had changed, as it was now under the rule of Mexico, that nation having just achieved its own independence from Spain after 300 years of Spanish dominion. Young Austin confirmed his father’s agreement with the new government of Mexico, and the Americans began to acquaint themselves with their new homeland. Soon, many more would arrive, and the Mexican authorities watched nervously at the growing majority of Yankees in Texas.
At first quite prepared to live as subjects of Mexico and abide by its laws, increasing restrictions on their liberty rankled at the Americans, and resentment grew. Open rebellion ensued in 1835, and the Texas/Americans declared their independence on March 2, 1836. Although the Texans achieved their freedom only after the far more significant Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, near Houston, it’s the heroic sacrifice at the Alamo that is celebrated in legend. There, just a few hundred rebels, including within their ranks a handful of Mexicans, occupied the mission and its surrounding yard, which had been hastily fortified. The Mexican Army, led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, laid siege to their garrison from February 24 to March 6, 1836. On that final day, the superior Mexican forces overran the fort and, despite taking heavy losses, defeated the rebels and secured the Alamo. Although a few escaped to report what had happened, some 187 Texans were killed, including the now-legendary figures of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and William Travis.
Though Texas ultimately surrendered its hard-won independence to become one of the United States in 1845, then briefly seceded from the union in 1861 to join the Confederacy, it’s the date of 1836 which is closest to the hearts of Texans. As its centennial anniversary approached, a tremendous celebration was planned, which would culminate in the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition at Dallas. A bill enacted June 15, 1933 provided for the coining of souvenir half dollars to be sold as part of the centennial observation, the first commemorative coin legislation signed into law since 1928. Proceeds from the sale of these coins would assist in the erection of a memorial building.
Selected as sculptor for this coin was Pompeo Coppini. His models were approved by the American Legion Texas Centennial Committee in May of 1934, whereupon they were delivered to the federal Commission of Fine Arts by Coppini himself, accompanied by Texas Congressman W. O. McFarlane. All of the many elements seen on the coins as issued were already in place, though rendered in an extremely crude fashion. The response by Commission Chairman Charles Moore to Under-Secretary of the Treasury L. W. Robert was unfavorable, to say the very least:
“The design shows the whole history of Texas and all its leading personages in a perfect hodgepodge. The heads are so small that they will disappear on a 50-cent piece and yet it is just this conglomeration on which the Texas people are relying to see 25 cents worth of silver done into a 50-cent piece at the price of a dollar . . .”
The Commission’s sculptor member, Lee Lawrie, suggested numerous changes to be made, including a comment that the slumping, vulture-like eagle “be designed to have dignity and spirit.” Coppini was understanding, but Congressman McFarlane grew impatient with any delays, as the coins were wanted well in advance of the actual centennial in 1936. Lawrie wrote to him with reassuring words to the effect that Coppini could make the desired changes and still retain the spirit of the original work. This seemed to satisfy all parties, as the revised models were approved by the Commission of Fine Arts on June 25, 1934.
Pompeo Coppini’s models were then approved by the Treasury Department before being sent to Medallic Art Company of New York City for reduction to hubs. The first installment of an authorized coinage of up to 1,500,000 pieces was produced during October and November of 1934 at the Philadelphia Mint. These were sold at $1 apiece by the American Legion Texas Centennial Committee. Although 205,113 pieces were coined with the 1934 date (the odd 113 were reserved for assay and later destroyed), sales lagged, and the Committee opted to return most of the unsold remainder in exchange for new halves dated 1935 and coined at all three mints. This obvious sales gimmick was the first in a series of abuses that resulted in three-coin sets being produced for each subsequent year through 1938. In August of that year, an advertisement appeared in The Numismatist announcing that existing supplies of Texas halves would be returned to the U. S. Mint for melting after November 1, 1938 and that no more would be coined. The ad went on to say that collectors were urged to complete their sets before it was too late.
A couple of years earlier, the Texas Centennial Committee had turned over the sales of these coins to another group called the Texas Memorial Museum Centennial Coin Committee, which was under the guidance of General Chairman Beauford H. Jester. Though its exploitation of the commemorative coin privilege was deplored by collectors, to its credit this committee did ultimately erect the promised memorial museum at the University of Texas in Austin.
Texas halves frequently show a lack of fullness in their central details. Specifically, Victory’s breasts, her hand, and parts of the branch and drapery at her thigh and knee may be slightly flattened. Satiny luster is the rule for this issue, although it may range from dull all the way to blazingly brilliant. Many of the 1934 coins were sold to the general public were mishandled. Later coins were more likely to enter numismatic channels and are generally better preserved. Look for the first signs of wear on the eagle’s knee and breast and on Victory’s eyebrow and knee.
Some 50 1935-D halves were coined as presentation pieces and show highly polished, prooflike obverse fields (the eagle side); their reverses will be only partially prooflike. These are quite rare and were issued in gold foil-covered boxes with a green velour lining. The underside of the box lid is imprinted TEXAS INDEPENDENCE CENTENNIAL, COMPLIMENTS OF E.H.R. GREEN. “Colonel” Green was a multi-millionaire and hoarder of rare coins until his death in 1936. Another 50 sets of the three 1935-dated halves were presented by Green in silver-foil boxes with a black velour lining; while the boxes are rare, the coins contained therein are ordinary strikes. Most Texas halves, however, were delivered in generic cardboard holders which have little value to collectors. Some of the 1934 halves were sold in plain, small envelopes or without any container at all.